REALITY BITES

A female Stanford labor economist urges graduates to avoid the trap of “trying to have it all”

Graduation speeches are usually brimming with optimism and idealism. Be your best self. Lean in. Make your dream work.

Myra Stober, a labor economist and professor emerita of education at Stanford University, took a different tack, offering Stanford’s graduate school of education students hard truths and pragmatic strategies for managing work-life balance.

“You can harmonize two careers with a successful family life, including children, if you want them,” said Strober, founding director of the Stanford Center for Research on Women said, at the June graduation ceremony.

“But it is a decidedly complicated goal, and our society doesn’t help.”

She aptly described work and family as “greedy institutions” which require a full commitment. She noted that for most of the graduates, the timing of building a family and pursuing a fulfilling career would likely suck: The most demanding years of family life would coincide with the most intense work years.

And the government will not be there to support you, she said. The US is the only industrialized country without universal paid maternity leave, there is insufficient affordable, high-quality child care, or early education programs. And flexible work arrangements are scarce.

The key, Strober said, is to “prioritize what is important,” to work for change, and to “try not to waste time being frustrated by trying to have it all.”

The phrase “to have it all” has been endlessly hashed out in pop culture. Sheryl Sandberg implored us to “lean in,” and former State Department official Anne Marie Slaughter told us it wasn’t possible. But neither solved the intractable problem of work-life balance that parents feel, and we remain desperate for a real-world model.

Strober used her speech as an opportunity to offer helpful examples—live near grandparents; consider nanny shares, or work for a company that prioritizes high-quality childcare—and she encouraged women to think hard about dropping out of work. Leaving for a long time means losing important networks and failing to keep up with changes in the workplace. The lost wages, she said, are only the “tip of the iceberg.” Research from the Center for American Progress shows that workers can expect to lose up to three or four times their annual salary for every year they are out of the workforce, she said.

Strober, who teaches a class at Stanford’s business school called “Work and Family”, was not without hope. “I can assure you from observing more than 40 years of Stanford graduates, that when both members of a couple consistently support each other, both can have successful careers as well as a loving relationship and thriving children.”

The stakes are high. Research on happiness is conclusive that successful family relationships, having enough money, and fulfilling work are critical—all of which makes solving the puzzle of dual-earning setups worth the effort.

She also implored her audience fight for those who don’t have the same voice and power. As a graduate of Stanford, she said, “you are now among the most privileged people in the world.”

“I hope you will work hard to make it possible not only for you to harmonize work and family, but also for others, with less education, and less clout to do the same.”

Yes, please.

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